It’s that time of the year and along with the Bollywood awards, Best Employer Awards have started hitting the stands. These Best Employer surveys exploded in the Indian market in the early 2000s. I still remember the excitement of the first Business Today Best Employer Survey of 2000-2001 and the celebration of the 2002 ceremony. Arun Shourie (then Union disinvestment minister) gave away the awards and Mukesh Ambani delivered the keynote address.
The surveys have since become institutionalized. Publications partner with different rating agencies in round-robin style. Today, most business magazines, some business newspapers and even a few TV channels have their variant of the Best Employer surveys—either regular or sporadic. Indeed, Best Employer Surveys have definitely been mainstreamed in Indian business, with most HR (human resources) heads aspiring for a ranking in one or the other of them.
But is it okay for HR managers to be in a “My job is done” (not to mention CV brownies) complacency once featured in the Best Employer lists? There are benefits certainly—positive employer brand association, employee pride and talent attraction. But if firms are to be innovative on people practices with an eye on better business metrics, they need to move on. The lodestar needs to shift from being a Best Employer to actually becoming a Better Employer for Better Performers.
A good place to start thinking about this suggestion is to observe the way firms go that extra mile to woo presumably great external talent—even if it means scoring a self-goal vis-à-vis their current employees. It is often a case of the grass being greener outside, leading to prematurely rewarding the yet unsighted virtue of new hires through sign-ons and “golden handcuffs”. But pause and think what it does, say, to a talented employee sourced at campus who has negotiated the labyrinthine path of company promotion policies, only to be disillusioned when a not-so-great lateral recruit jumps the queue. The bottom line is that firms rarely show the requisite diligence and perseverance in rewarding their internal high performers. In pursuit of a Competitive Advantage, we back our top-selling brands and services, often pulling out scarce resources from other lines to fuel the stars. So why aren’t we doing the same with human resources? The truly successful organizations hold on to their High Performers through active employee management, though this is well-nigh impossible without the creation of a holistic, high performance organizational work ethic.
Hall of fame: Reward internal high performers.
Conventional straitjacket thinkers and the “do not upset the apple cart” brigade within the firm will put out a dozen reasons why the firm should not discriminate positively in favour of superior performers. Parity, seniority, impact on the rest and a host of similar reasons can be expected to be doled out. They will mention that the Reward and Compensation systems—differential pay, bonus payouts and retention clauses—address the better performers. However, to truly be a Better Employer for Better Performers, this mindset has to permeate all aspects of Employee Management.
For starters let the high performers know where they stand in the pecking order. If not, you run the risk of losing them because they felt “excluded” from the power circles in the organization they felt they belonged to. Their replacements, usually sourced with much wooing from outside, could end up as compromise candidates, creating a trail of sub-optimal solutions due to a key issue left unaddressed at the outset.
Ring-fence these high performers when they are “settling in” to their new assignments to avoid “infant mortality” kind of attrition. This “Assimilation” period is when such resources are at their most vulnerable, not having acquired the goodwill equity that protected them in their previous successful stints. Senior leaders will constantly have to pulse-check to see if they are being treated “fairly” and not being subjected to the proverbial “mother-in-law syndrome”—and “I suffered thus, so why shouldn’t he?”, from insecure superiors.
Training programmes and learning interventions will have to be suitably tailored and customized for such talent, a Premium Suite kind of offering. Even Engagement Surveys could be designed without compromising their inherent confidentiality to ascertain how Better Performers are experiencing the organization; and how to address their specific concerns. What a powerful tool then the traditional Employee Satisfaction Survey becomes.
The secret is to design and deploy these interventions with sensitivity. Most importantly, implementing line managers will have to be trained to handle both the differentiation and the messaging down the line. Every member of the C-Suite (CXOs) has to buy into this credo. Passive resistance from senior leaders will be suicidal to the cause. The belief and commitment of the HR department is also crucial, a tough ask when members of this fraternity are generally much more comfortable with the “will set a precedence” argument. In the spirit of full disclosure, this author must confess that this transition, personally, has been very tough. Please don’t get me wrong. Not for a moment am I advocating ignoring the Solid Citizens or the B Players. They are critical to the organization and are what give the demographic the solidity that is so warranted in these challenging times. But the hard truth is that there have to be different rules for the Stars. As Marshall Goldsmith (a management thinker) says, “If you don’t modify your HR systems to match tomorrow’s realities, you will lose the competitive edge.”
Maybe it is time for another type of award, this time for the Best “Better Employers for Better Performers”. Award or not, internal rewards through better business results will accrue to those who embrace it. And to those who make the award list, it is unlikely to see an Aamir Khan- or Ajay Devgan-like absence at the next stellar event.
Hema Ravichandar is an independent human resources consultant who is on the board of Titan Industries Ltd and Marico Ltd. She was formerly global head of HR at Infosys Technologies Ltd.
Write to Hema at email@example.com